Panel Paper: Does Pupil Transportation Close the School Quality Gap? Evidence from NYC

Friday, November 9, 2018
Wilson C - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Cordes, Temple University and Amy Ellen Schwartz, Syracuse University

Driven by residence-based school assignment rules and the persistent racial and socioeconomic segregation of neighborhoods, poor and minority students are disproportionately assigned to low-quality schools, while more advantaged students are assigned to higher-quality schools with better resources and peers, more experienced teachers, and higher performance. One increasingly popular solution to address these disparities in school quality is to allow students to attend schools outside of their residential catchment area or “zone”. The hope is that students zoned to low quality local schools will use the opportunity to attend higher quality schools outside of their catchment area, thereby reducing disparities between poor and non-poor, blacks and whites, etc. Whether (or to what extent) this hope is realized depends, in large part, on students’ ability to get to better schools and the costs (including both non-financial costs such as time, stress, etc., and financial costs) incurred by the commute. Put simply, a key ingredient for the success of policies that reduce reliance on attendance zones is pupil transportation -- the availability, participation and quality of school bus services, as well as subsidies for public transit. There is, however, virtually no research in this area, with little evidence on the extent to which students use pupil transportation to attend better schools. In this paper, we begin to close that gap by exploring the relationship between transportation use and school quality in NYC.

To do so, we take advantage of uniquely detailed individual-level data on the transportation provided to all NYC public school students. These include information on individual eligibility for and assignment to transportation services – school buses or public transit subsidies – which we link to student-level administrative data on student characteristics, program participation, residential address and school attended.

We find that students using pupil transportation are significantly less likely to attend the school nearest to their home than observationally equivalent students living in the same neighborhood. We also find that students using transportation attend higher quality schools than others, and students who use transportation to attend a school other than the nearest school attend higher quality schools than those who use transportation to attend the nearest school. Among those students who attend a school other than the nearest, we find that students using transportation are more likely to attend a school that is significantly better than their nearest school than students with no transportation. These results suggest that transportation may play an important role in helping students access higher quality schools.